Over a three year stretch from 2012 to 2014, Cleveland drafted three consecutive outfielders with their first round picks.
Those three young ball players — Tyler Naquin, Clint Frazier, and Bradley Zimmer, in order — would, in a perfect world where everything works out, be the outfield of the future. Zimmer with his five tools and spidery legs would patrol center, Naquin’s cannon arm would hold down right as he laced doubles around the park, and Frazier’s insane bat speed would turn into 75 extra-base hits a year in left. It was all laid out, a seamless design of the ideal outfield. Athleticism, offense, defense, it had everything.
Baseball being what it is, though, literally nothing worked out. Zimmer hasn’t been able to stay on the field, and when he has his continual adjustments and offensive struggles have left him as a defensive replacement. Frazier turned into Andrew Miller, and has disappeared into the depths of the Yankees’ 40-man roster.
Then there’s Naquin.
Probably the least heralded of the trio of first rounders, the one with the least amount of projectability or high-end talent, somehow Naquin is the one that’s sticking, the one that’s finding a place, full time, on Cleveland’s roster. Somehow, we knew it had to be this way.
Naquin got the opportunity that Frazier and Zimmer never got — and really no first-rounder I can think of in the last 10 years aside from Francisco Lindor even. Through sheer luck — his good, the team’s bad — he was able to play, consistently, for an extended period of time in his rookie campaign. He wasn’t sidelined by injury like Zimmer or variously blocked like Frazier, and things broke right for him. Micheal Brantley was out for the year, Marlon Byrd was suspended and there being no other real options, so they needed a body out there for 116 games. He was amazing for a while there, and ended up third in Rookie of the Year voting, as well as making probably the most indelible moment of the entire season with his inside-the-park walk off homer. Even then, though, the massive hole in his swing and his lack of range in the outfield were beginning to reveal themselves. Naquin was — and continues to be — a flawed player. That doesn’t mean he’s bad, he’s just what he is.
Somehow, that flawed player is right now a very flawed team’s second best hitter, at least in terms of outcomes. There’s more to what José Ramírez is doing than on the stat sheet, and Francisco Lindor is too good to not turn this around, but with only 30ish games left to play, advanced stats aren’t what I care about. We don’t have time to regress to the mean. Whatever it says in the box score, it’s what we have to believe right now.
Naquin has been such a solidifying force in the lineup too. No, he’s not out there blasting baseballs off the wall. He’s not Luis Robert or Ian Happ or Mike Yastrzemski, breaking out in some kind of big way to help their club in the run column. He’s a league average bat in the grander scheme of things. Cleveland was so feast or famine before he returned from the injured list that was something they desperately needed if only to add a little length to the lineup.
Still, he’s performing better than that right now, and that’s what’s helping. The 111 wRC+ is nothing mind-bending, but it’s better than most other hitters. He hit a couple of dingers over the weekend, and even those Statcast stats are telling an interesting story. He’s putting up a 14.7 degree launch angle, the highest of his career and a major positive.
One of Naquin’s big things that would hold him back was that big hole at the top of the strike zone where he just had to chase fastballs, and that he beat the ball straight down at all times. It’s only 41 batted balls, but between that and the 12.6-degree launch angle last year over 212 batted balls, maybe he’s making a bit of a shift. He’s always hit the ball hard — this year he’s got a career high 48.8% hard-hit rate (10% better than league average) so if he can get it above the infielders, there’s bound to be base hits showing up.
This is all maybe good news. Naquin has been on and off the injured list the last couple seasons, just as age-wise, he’d be hitting his physical prime. He’s never really been able to get a real encore from that wild rookie year, or adjust to how they adjusted to him in any real, extended sense. And maybe that’s not happening. Maybe this is just another hot streak that will trick us into thinking that Naquin is something more than he is. Right now, whatever that is, just happens to be a key piece in the fate of the team this season.
It wasn’t really supposed to turn out this way, not when we were looking at prospect lists in 2015 and seeing a bright future with Lindor and this trio of incredible outfielders, ready to carry Cleveland to a bright future of trophies and triumph. That didn’t work out, and we’re stuck with a team that can alternately amaze and truly frustrate.
After all this silliness, of course it had to be Tyler Naquin.